For Russians, Brexit elicits schadenfreude, but also worry

Britain's pending exit from the European Union recalls the breakup of the USSR but also raises questions about Russia's attempt to build its own common market.

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters/File
Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul (seen here in 2012 in Moscow) wrote an editorial this week calling Brexit a victory for Russian President Putin.

Many Russians are viewing the global turmoil brought on by the Brexit vote with a mix of amazement, satisfaction, worry and, for some older people who lived through the Soviet collapse, a touch of schadenfreude.

It's a moment that seems to work in the Kremlin's favor as Britain, Russia's biggest critic, looks set to depart the European Union. That augurs well for an easing of EU sanctions against Russia and a relaxation of tensions with NATO on its western borders. But it also triggers deep fears of a more unpredictable world among Russians who have known a great deal of political and economic turmoil in their own lives.

“There's a temptation to be smug about the troubles besetting the EU, which was only recently trying to teach us lessons, punish us, and put us in our place,” says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. But "if the past quarter century has taught us anything, it's that you can be up one month, down the next. Stability is a very precious, but fragile condition. I talk to a lot of people, and almost all of them are hoping that Russian diplomacy will use this situation to build bridges with Europe and minimize differences rather than make things worse," he says.

The EU's current difficulties also hold lessons for Russia's own efforts to construct a common market on former Soviet space. The now five-member Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) officially came into being at the beginning of 2015.

Visiting Beijing last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin talked up the idea of an expanded zone of economic integration that would include the Moscow-led group plus China, India and Iran. But experts say the EU's woes are a cautionary tale that eastern leaders would ignore at their peril.

"The USSR was an involuntary union, forged by coercion, and probably can't be compared with the EU," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow. "But even unions that are based on shared values and democratic practices are clearly unstable formations that are vulnerable to political shifts. … If such a powerful and prosperous union as the EU can't hold itself together, what hope does Moscow have of doing better?"

A victory for Putin?

Some Russian politicians appeared to exult in the Brexit vote, such as the leader of the pro-Kremlin Right Cause party Boris Titov, who posted the hope that US influence on Europe would wane to Russia's advantage on his Facebook page. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov expressed "satisfaction" with the British referendum result and predicted further disintegration for the EU.

Former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul argued in a widely quoted op-ed that Brexit was "a win for Putin." But there is no evidence that the Kremlin actually did anything to influence the result. Indeed, Mr. Putin's only remarkable comment on the subject was a very Russian expression of bewilderment at British Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to call the vote in the first place.

Many Russians appeared equally surprised.

"It's unbelievable that this could happen. I have visited London several times, and been very impressed by the prosperity, order and general well-being," says Vadim Kuznetsov, a history student at Moscow State University. "Where did this storm come from? It just shows that you can never trust the outward appearance of things. For me, it's very scary."

Lyubov Zhakova, a Moscow pensioner, says that she doesn't see any impact of Brexit in Russia, but she feels sorry for the British young people who will have to bear the consequences of a decision made mainly by older voters who have never experienced the feeling of national collapse. "Isn't it obvious that they would all be better off together in the EU?" she asks.

Memories of Soviet breakup

The collapse of the USSR 25 years ago seems much on the minds of many Russians, even if most admit the analogy is shaky. The Soviet colossus, which had seemed such a permanent fixture on the global scene, pulled itself apart and crumbled within months – ironically, amid a flurry of referendums in 1991.

Nostalgia for the departed USSR is a perennial feature in Russian political culture, and has lately even been rising.

"Many remember that time of uncertainty when the Soviet Union broke up. It would be unreasonable to draw parallels, but a period of turbulence, uncertainty and unpredictability is a hard fact. We all know that such periods do happen in the history of different states," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists Monday.

Scotland's threat to hold a fresh independence referendum reminds many Russians of the domino effect that led to the USSR's swift demise, as most Soviet republics held votes to secede from the union.

"We just ‘register in cool blood’ the statements and decisions currently made in Scotland, various campaigns to collect signatures, and so on. We register the statements made in UK parliament, which are quite contradictory, and, based on this, we say that so far the situation is incomprehensible and unpredictable, " Mr. Peskov said.

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